It was the first week of March 2002. I was working as a soft journalist—a term people often use for Features journalists—in the Lucknow edition of The Times of India.
A phone call distracted me. It was from one of my favourite Bollywood directors from Mumbai. (Name withheld on purpose).For years he and I have shared a bond after I first interviewed him on his National Award winning movie, that bagged the Rajiv Gandhi Prize on Communal Harmony, based on his mother’s life. I am her namesake, and for that reason alone, he makes himself available to me anytime I call, wherever he is in the world. “Shirin, can you give me your address please. I am sending across some stuff. It is likely to disturb you but you are one of the few I can trust. Our crew was the first to reach Naroda Patiya. We have documented a lot of stuff that will come in use later. We are sending the same across to Amnesty International also. This needs to be seen, spoken and written about.”
The parcel, when it arrived, was pretty inconspicuous. A Speedpost courier, in the usual light blue gauze-backed envelope, bubble-wrapped to prevent damage. On opening it, out spilled two CDs, an application addressed to the Amnesty International and a dossier documenting every article written on the carnage in Gujarat that shook the country and the decision on which today has probably brought solace to the victims of Naroda Patiya. Hastily marked with a thick red marker in Hindi, the CDs said nothing of the blood and gore they contained.
I ran the same on my desktop…and froze. Empty streets, burning vehicles, ravaged homes. And then– halls full of bodies. Some twisted in anguish, others charred beyond recognition just the unseeing eyes staring back at you. Mouths open, in a silent scream of unspoken horror, at what they had witnessed. All sharing their ignominy in death.
Those segregating the bodies had been meticulous. Women and girls in one room. Boys and men in another. Lumped together by their rough ages in heaps. 0 to 2 years/ 3 to 5 years/ 5 to 8 years/8-12 years/ 14-18 years/ 20-40 years/ And the rest.
The bodies of the men and boys had been brutally vandalized. Hands chopped, head missing/ deep sword gash spilling out the innards. Some burnt to death, others just attacked fatally and left to die.
The camera panned to the next room taking a long shot of the bodies kept there, slightly out of focus as if to protect the dignity of the women, at least in death. For in life they had been dragged out of their homes and murdered in cold blood. Young children, girls in their teens. Girls and ladies who had observed purdah all through their lives, disrobed and raped by nearly a score at one time before being urinated on, set afire and burnt alive. Young mothers, and if they were unlucky, mothers to be—again having met the same fate, the latter with a special bonus—their ripened stomachs severed with a blow of the sword to give a blood curdling end to the fetus they bore. Middle-aged and old—ravaged again. Most with not a stitch on, their charred shriveled breasts testimony that the milk of human kindness failed them in their dying moments.
And then –the unidentified body parts…like jumbled pieces from several jigsaw puzzles, unattached, discarded, not fitting together and left in a hurried abandonment—just under the head ‘Females’ and ‘Male.’ Some with bangles still on. Others with shiny rings, rings that had melted and fused with the flesh.
And now the other CD. Interviews from those that got away. Not for them the release to death but a lifetime of remembering and waiting for retribution. The wails, the faces—weeping, wracked with the kind of pain one can never imagine. Hiding their faces with their hands, beating their chests and relating what they saw, witnessed and went through. “I saw young girls being dragged out on the street, their clothes ripped till they had not a stich on, raped by 14-15 men on the open street at one time, urinated on and burnt alive,” an old man wept. “My 45 year old son tried to stop them from dragging away a woman, they dragged him out instead and killed him in front of my eyes,” he revealed, tears pouring down his face.
“We saw the cops directing them to a lane, and in a few minutes, they came running back, chased by the mob which was brandishing naked swords. And the police did nothing,” another man, the scar of a sword wound cleaving his face, revealed.
When the horror playing on my screen finally stopped, I remember just putting my head down on the table and sobbing my heart out. For the second time since the demolition of a mosque closer home, I felt disowned, disgraced, betrayed, cast aside—only on the basis of my religion. It was time for my children aged 10 and 12 to return from school. I did not want to watch the carnage unfold before them so logged off, washed my face and got ready to give them lunch. I had no appetite for that day at least. For days they wondered at my red eyes, why I constantly kept hugging them to my chest and crying, for no reason. I never told them why.
Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad witnessed the worst massacre in the riots of 2002. Officially, 91 people were killed in the course of 48 hours. Unofficially though, the figure stands at 200. I wish the CDs had stood the test of time so I could help in the body count. They are however available everywhere on the Internet thankfully. The dossier of the news articles has survived.
And as Babu Bajrangi faces his nemesis, I wonder—what happened to the dossier sent to Amnesty International? Why was the world a mute spectator to the carnage? For three days the worst possible violence wracked a state and the person at the helm was not responsible? Worse still, he and his key aide has the nation spread before them like a canvas now to paint another bloody future for the world’s largest secular democracy. The bitter irony is, today he is being welcomed with open arms in the same nations where mainstream newspapers once carried a full page photo of him post the Gujarat carnage on their Front page with the caption—“This is the face of the Hitler of India.”
But some memories are short and consciences shallow. I envy them their amnesia and short-term memories. For the wails of the victims of Naroda Patiya will haunt me forever in this lifetime. It’s a wound that will never heal…a pain that refuses to die…